WASHINGTON -- The landscape of scientists and engineers is certainly a lot more diverse than it was 20 years ago, but serious gender gaps remain. That was the consensus here at a hearing  of the House Committee on Science and Technology's Subcommittee on Research and Science Education Tuesday. The hearing focused on finding ways to attract more female science students.
The fact that women are underrepresented in a number of STEM fields shows itself in the proportions of degrees granted to each gender. In 2006, women earned 58 percent of all bachelor's degrees, but only 20 percent of computer science bachelor's degrees, 21 percent of physics degrees and 20 percent of engineering degrees, according to data from the National Science Foundation. The same data also found that on the whole, women hold more than half of science and technology degrees, with women earning 77 percent of psychology degrees, 62 percent of biological sciences degrees, and 54 percent of social sciences degrees.
"The jobs of the future are going to require of workers a basic understanding of the principles of math and science. If we do not persuade women to pursue these fields, they are already [risking] cutting themselves out of a great job future," said Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-MI).
The problems with -- and thus, possibly the solutions for -- getting female students involved in science begin at an early age. Sandra Hanson, professor of sociology at Catholic University and a researcher on women in science, said that the culture of science is often associated with white men. When a study asked little kids to draw pictures of scientists, she said, they often drew white males. When they did draw women, the women looked "severe and unhappy." Nearly 70 percent of fourth graders of both gender report liking science, but by eighth grade male students report liking STEM fields twice as much as female students. As time goes on, female students face a drop-off in interest, particularly in middle school when students become more self-conscious, during high school when they have to decide whether to put themselves on advanced track math and science curricula, and throughout college and graduate school.
The hearing charter stated, "Issues such as a lack of female role models or a female peer group, and unsupportive classroom environments have been shown to deter women from pursuing or remaining in STEM degree programs in post-secondary school."
"Unwelcoming classrooms, outdated teaching styles, and a lack of accommodation for different social or cultural experiences can all add up to create an environment that students decide to leave rather than thrive in. This affects men as well as women," said Barbara Bogue, co-founder of the Society for Women Engineers Assessing Women and Men in Engineering Project at Penn State.
Alan Leshner, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said that role models may already be a proven method of eradicating the gender gap. In biological sciences, one reason that the majority of degrees are now granted to women is because the number of female role models in that field far outnumbers the other STEM fields, leading to what he termed a "self-fulfilling prophecy."
Bogue warned against "negative role models" who give the impression that they are overly obsessed with their work and drive people away by making the field seem too demanding.
Hanson, along with the other witnesses and subcommittee member Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH) agreed that a link between STEM fields and athletics is beneficial. By participating in athletics, female students learn to assert themselves, act as individuals, and stand up for themselves -- skills that keep girls from allowing themselves to be deterred from STEM fields.
But what happens when women enter our nation's colleges and universities? Hanson said that higher education is not immune from the sexism associated with scientific fields, which can often deter women in large classes. Providing small hands-on classes is one step towards integrating women who might not feel comfortable in the environment of science academics.
She mentioned a University of Michigan study in which two colleges with nearly identical math classes were observed, but one of them was co-ed and the other was female only. The STEM students in the single-sex college ended up outscoring their counterparts by 50 percent, suggesting the importance of "a critical mass of women" to success.
Women in STEM fields are at times also forced to play catch-up if they have not adequately been prepared for the rigor of university-level science classes. If women have not taken the most advanced math and science courses in high school, they do not always enter college with the needed skills. She said that universities should provide additional support to help women get up to speed, or even form partnerships with high schools to help female students prepare early.
Bogue mentioned that STEM higher education curricula are often very stringent about elective courses, which forces students to choose between science and liberal arts courses. A more "expansive" liberal arts curriculum, she said, could stop STEM fields from driving away potential students, including females.